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Minister must defend cultural integrity

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Editor: The Historical and Archaeological Society of St. Vincent and the Grenadines views with alarm the attempts of Minister of Tourism and Culture Rene Baptiste, to disregard the intention of Disney Corporation of the United States to portray the Caribs of Dominica, and perhaps St. Vincent and the Grenadines, as cannibals. {{more}}

A newscast on a local radio station last week, based on a Press release from the Ministry of Tourism and Culture, reported the Minister as saying a number of things:

• She doesn’t know what the fuss is all about. The movie is a work of fiction and not a historical documentary.

• She has not received any complaints from her counterpart, Dominica’s Minister of Tourism, about the production of the movie or Disney itself.

• Five (5) out of seven (7) tribal leaders are working with Disney. There are also 650 Dominicans working on the set.

The Historical and Archaeological Society strongly protests those views, which appear deceptively ill informed and insensitive to preserving the dignity and humanity of the Carib People. The Minister appears to be engaging in obfuscation; there is only one Carib Chief in Dominica – Charles Williams. He is the chief of all the Caribs. A small territorial Council assists Mr. Williams. There are no tribal leaders and tribes as implied in the Press release.

While the Minister claims that she has not received any official reports from Dominica, it is incumbent on her as a responsible Minister of Government to find out what is happening before throwing in her lot with Disney. At no time has she expressed any concern, based on reports by responsible individuals and organizations, about scenes of cannibalism and nudity that Disney has written into a “final Script”.

The tremendous criticisms leveled at Disney by the Arima Carib Council of Trinidad, the National Garifuna Council of Belize, Chief Charles Williams of Dominica, Professor Brinsley Samaroo, Head of the History Department, St. Augustine Campus; the Historical and Archaeological Society of St. Vincent, and Dr. Adrian Fraser, Head of School of Continuing Studies UWI, Kingstown, cannot have escaped the eyes and ears of Minister Baptiste. These criticisms came on the heels of a powerful statement by Chief Williams, who was told by Disney officials that “…the movie has a strong element of cannibalism in it, they cannot hide it, and it is a reality they cannot change.” Minister Baptiste, who has not contacted any of the major players, including Chief Williams, pronounces the issue to be a mere storm in a teacup.

But no movie script is even written in stone, and it can and must be changed. Many persons have asked the question: “How would Vincentians feel, and how would the government respond, knowing that Disney has just portrayed the descendants of, and by implication Rt. Excellency Joseph Chatoyer, First National Hero of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, a CANNIBAL?”

The Minister and Disney can claim that the sequels are a work of fiction, but they are based on the historical records. The cinema is not just about entertainment; it is a powerful educational tool. Perpetuating a myth through a fictionalized account could have far greater negative consequences because more people would view the biased story of the Caribs in the soft (movie) format than would read a decent work of history or anthropology.

The pirates were real people when they entered and plundered the Caribbean in a well-documented period of our history. They had engaged Caribs and not East Indians, Germans or Africans. The movies as “fiction” must be placed in some historical context to give them a semblance of plausibility as a story, and cinematic license should not do violence to the historical record. Moreover, reviving the psychological chains of cannibalism is not in the best interests of encouraging community pride and cultural solidarity in a developing island-state. We therefore reject the Minister’s view that the movie has no historical moorings. We also deplore her lack of empathy for Dominica’s and the region’s Carib community.

We appreciate the fact that St. Vincent and the Grenadines would stand to gain financially from all the activities associated with the filming of the movie sequels. We are very happy for positive foreign investments. But we must minimize negative impacts. We must be stronger in defence of our cultural integrity. We must lay down cultural and shooting guidelines to all film producers. The Disney people are our guests and not vice versa. We must not allow money to dictate our cultural values and change our historical realities.

The poor handling of the Disney controversy by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism has further eroded its credibility, and we hope that the Minister’s remarks would not contribute to the further marginalization, and erosion of respect for the Carib community in the region.

Finally, now that we are in the midst of constitutional reform, it would be useful to explore the possibility of inclusion of specific protections for the Carib/Garifuna cultures in any new constitutional arrangement. This would help to protect them from undue commercial and political exploitation by locals and foreigners alike, and in general promote respect for our indigenous peoples. These protections would be part of the citizen’s fundamental rights and freedoms. This is particularly important in relation to the person of our National Hero, Paramount Chief Joseph Chatoyer.

Paul E. Lewis, Secretary and Public Relations Officer

Historical and Archaeological Society of SVG

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